Edd Byrnes was born Edward Byrne Breitenberger on July 30, 1932 in New York City, the son of Mary (Byrne) and Augustus “Gus” Breitenberger. Edd shared an impoverished and unhappy childhood with brother Vincent and sister Jo-Ann. Their mother worked hard at various jobs to keep the family together because her alcoholic husband was often absent from the scene.
When Edd was fifteen, his father was found dead in a basement. Edd then dropped his surname (Breitenberger) in favor of “Byrnes”, based on the name of his maternal grandfather, Edward Byrne, a New York City fireman. He found escape from family problems at the movies and at the gym, where he developed an athletic body. At age 17 he was approached by a man who offered to take free “physique” photos of him. According to his 1996 autobiography, “Kookie No More”, this led to a few years of “hustling” older, well-to-do men, despite the fact that Edd was heterosexual. One of these men acted as Edd’s mentor, introducing him to fashion and culture and encouraging his hopes for an acting career.
After doing some summer-stock work and a few bit parts on TV, Edd drove to California in 1955, arriving in Los Angeles on the day James Dean died in a car crash. He managed to get a few minor parts in films and then won a role in a new TV series, 77 Sunset Strip (1958), which premiered in September 1958. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Roger Smith starred as private eyes but Edd, playing a hip-talking parking-lot attendant named “Kookie”, won the most attention. Viewers quoted his dialog, (“Baby, you’re the ginchiest!”), and young males imitated the way he wielded his ever-present comb. His fan mail soon reached an astonishing 15,000 letters a week and his single with Connie Stevens, “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb”, became a top-5 hit. Edd chafed, however, at the restrictions in his Warner Brothers contract, which forced him to turn down roles in Ocean’s 11 (1960), North to Alaska (1960) and Rio Bravo (1959).
He walked off the “77 Sunset Strip” set and in the ensuing months began to drink heavily and visit a psychiatrist, who administered drugs to him. His contract dispute was eventually settled, though not much to his advantage, and when he returned to “77 Sunset Strip” his role was upgraded from “sidekick” to “partner” and he wore a suit and tie. Audience reaction was not good, ratings dropped, and the show was canceled. The hip-talking, hair-combing image clung to him, however, and Edd felt he lost the lead in PT 109 (1963) because President John F. Kennedy didn’t want to be played by “Kookie”. A few more movies and TV appearances followed, but his career had passed its peak before he turned 30.
In 1962, he married long-time girlfriend Asa Maynor. Their son, Logan, was born on September 13, 1965. Edd and Asa’s marriage ended in divorce in 1971, partially due to his substance abuse. In 1982, he succeeded in going “clean and sober” but never remarried. Byrnes died on January 8, 2020, aged 87, in Santa Monica, California.
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